At a glance, these lavishly equipped ultra-luxury chariots are aiming their mighty trademark radiator grilles at exactly the same lucrative niche in the market. In reality, however, they differ dramatically in approach, ambience and appeal. The Bentley Flying Spur is an old-school five-seater sports car which fuses a finely trimmed grandfather interior with a high-performance chassis and drivetrain. The Mercedes S600 looks no different to a dressed up S300, but its sophisticated specification reads like a summary of The Technology Bible. The Rolls-Royce Ghost S2 combines the presence of a self-conscious status symbol with the dynamic talents of a properly engineered plaything. One thing, however, they all have in common: synchronologically suicidal fuel gauges, proving once again that weight, drag and a heavy right foot are the arch-enemies of efficiency.
Despite a recent facelift, the Bentley is the oldest car in this trio, and it feels it. The slimfit packaging belies the Spur’s generous 5299mm footprint, the stiff suspension has been set-up for sure-footedness and speed, and the weight of 2.4 tonnes suggests that the body is still made of Sheffield steel. The driver’s seat is hard, contourless and not sufficiently adjustable, and the beautifully finished yet deliberately antique interior lacks such mod-cons as standard shift paddles, driver-assistance systems and contemporary infotainment. This is a dated vehicle, charming in its own way and certainly characterful, but wanting in most areas beyond chrome, wood and leather. For less money, the S600 offers more equipment, an infinitely more supple ride and half a dozen more square feet of cabin space. But you would have to look long and hard for a luxury liner that gets you faster from A to B than this bad, black Bentley.
On the three-lane highway heading for the Tyrolean Alps, the S-Class is the easiest car to drive hard and fast. Wide and well poised and always firmly planted, it feels rock solid even as it deals with aquaplaning grooves, yawning expansion joints and fast washboard sweepers. Whoever is in charge of the ugly two-spoke helm will be assisted by adaptive cruise control complete with brake actuation, automatic lane guidance, night vision and magic body control, which employs three cameras to scan the road surface, thereby conditioning the steel springs and the adjustable dampers for the undulations to come.
Matching the Bentley in length, the S600 is vast inside, its seats are complex and comfortable, parking is fully automatic if you so desire, on-demand surface heating extends to the door panels and the centre console, and the intelligent light system outshines its rivals for diversity, range and response. Yet, although the Mercedes is super-comfortable and ultra-safe, it’s still commendably involving. Rather unexpectedly, similar praise applies to the Ghost S2. What makes all the difference here is the optional new Dynamic Driving Package. Quicker steering operated by a thicker-rimmed wheel, revised struts all round, tauter hydraulic rear suspension mounts and recalibrated shock absorbers were all it took to add a welcome dash of precision and an extra dose of ground-hugging ability. The slight slack around the straight-ahead position that made us frown at high speed in earlier Ghosts has all but disappeared, body roll and brake dive are now better suppressed, and despite all that mass and momentum the Ghost now feels more confidence-inspiring when pushed.
Also part of the update are high-intensity LED headlamps with integrated cornering lights. With the exception of the more supportive seats, the cabin remains virtually unchanged, so there’s still that silly power reserve gauge instead of a more useful rev counter. The picturesque mountain range which unites the Southern tip of Bavaria and the slim end of Austria spoils visitors with a network of remarkably challenging driving roads. Whenever a mix of tight corners and steep climbs ups the ante, the Flying Spur emerges as the undisputed master of ceremony. After all, it’s the only one with four-wheel drive. This active safety bonus makes the flying B virtually unbeatable in terms of traction and grip. Add to this the mighty 800Nm of torque dished up by the 6.0-litre W12, and it becomes clear why the Benz and the Roller are having bad dreams of swiftly vanishing Bentley taillight graphics. In charge of distributing the twist action is an eight-speed automatic. It sadly lacks standard fingertip controls which would help to manage the flow on the fast downhill sections where even the immensely powerful composite brakes will eventually sizzle under pressure.
Dynamic Driving Package notwithstanding there comes a point where the Rolls prefers a more leisurely pace, and in this illustrious company that point tends to come sooner rather than later. With ESP on, the Ghost is automatically reeled soon enough for the glasses on the rear picnic tables to stay put. But with ESP off, you find yourself manoeuvring the Titanic through the upper reaches of the Thames. Just as you wouldn’t wear tails when entering a decathlon, it makes no sense at all to coax the Rolls into sports car antics. Although Bentley also lays claim on the term waftability, it is arguably better suited to the Ghost – as soon as the road contracts and the radii become tighter, the Rolls prefers a steady pace. It is at its best surfing the 780Nm torque wave which crests at a shallow 1500rpm, it appreciates defensive steering and throttle angles, it even uses its sat-nav to avoid superfluous gearchanges. In this car, more so than in the other two, a smooth driving style will be rewarded with total refinement and – pardon the cliché – splendid isolation.
Like the W12 fitted to the Spur and the 6.6-litre V12 shoehorned into the Ghost, the 6.0-litre V12 that drives the S600 is not exactly a brand-new piece of kit. Instead, the three-valver harks back to the original 5.5-litre V12 that was first shown in the Maybach 57 in 2002. At 395kW, the twin-turbo motor cannot quite match the Ghost’s 425kW or the Bentley’s even more muscular 847kW, but with 830Nm of torque on tap, the comparatively light Mercedes is anything but a sluggard. It actually matches the car from Crewe by mastering the 0-100kph sweepstakes in 4.6sec, in the process eclipsing the rival from Goodwood by 0.3sec. While S600 and Ghost are governed at 250kph, the third musketeer can – just – top 320kph where conditions permit. Such high speed rarely matters, but handling and roadholding always do, and here the Benz does struggle now and then to beam itself into fast-forward mode. While the S63 AMG is available with 4Matic all-wheel drive, the more comfort-oriented S600 is not, which is why ESP keeps raising its electronic digit – especially when you’re trying to keep up with that Flying Spur.
Luxury has many facets, and these three giants cover most of them with aplomb. Space? The Merc is hard to beat here, and this verdict extends to the back seats which combine ample leg- and headroom with active massage. Equipment? Top honours go again to the Benz which won’t even charge you extra for most of the first-class goodies. Ergonomics? A narrow win for the BMW-insipired Rolls-Royce which comes with a bespoke and improved version of iDrive. The cockpit of the S600 is fully loaded with touchpads, knobs, buttons and thumbwheels, but the maze is hard to decipher, and some details are questionable. Sense of occasion? If you like Teutonic flair paired with overkill engineering (motorised buckles, airbags for the rear belts, perfume dispenser, that kind of stuff), you will appreciate the Mercedes.
If you prefer the typical gentleman’s club atmosphere, the beautifully executed and tastefully appointed Bentley may be the right choice. But to make a statement of real presence and affluence, nothing beats the dramatic rear coach doors of the Ghost, the inviting theatre seats in the back and the tasteful yet functional cockpit.
To confirm that these 12-cylinder engines are among the smoothest-running powerplants money can buy, we put them to the coin test by placing a coin upright on each idling engine. The coin stayed put on all three units. True to the character of the car it propels, the W12 is the sportiest motor here. It sounds a little gruff on overrun, hoarse at full song and quite sonorous at part throttle. Eager to rev and prompt to respond, the UK-built engine (which started life rather more humbly in the VW Phaeton in 2002) needs 6000rpm to deliver the goods. It is redlined at 6200rpm, just like the Merc’s 6.0-litre, but that’s where the similarity ends – the S600 will spread its peak power from a relaxed 4900 to 5300rpm. Developed and manufactured in Munich, the dedicated V12 installed in the Ghost requires 5250rpm to summon full energy. The seven-speeder it is attached to works with exceptional smoothness, a virtue underlined by the absence of shift paddles and a choice of drive programmes. In the Benz, you may change gears with your fingertips or lock the software in Dynamic mode. The Spur is the only contender fitted with an eight-speed ’box which provides one useful additional ratio to better apportion the broader rpm and mph bands.
We were expecting cushy rides, effortless drivetrains and competent suspension set-ups, and that’s exactly what we got, albeit to differing degrees. What comes as a surprise is the collective stopping power of the brakes, all of which employ manhole-cover-sized discs straddled by calipers big enough to tame a roadtrain. Fitted with optional carbon-ceramic rotors, the Bentley (which here runs on 21in summer tyres) squashes kinetic energy at very high speed, combining fast rewind deceleration with a commendably progressive pedal feel and absolutely zero brake fade. The 300kg weight advantage of the S600 pays off by shortening the stopping distance and by cutting the response time. Even the Rolls-Royce, which puts an overt emphasis on appearance and near silent progress, boasts a potent and neatly balanced stopping apparatus. Like the light, two-finger steering, the brake pedal only needs a couple of toes’ input to deliver. Another forte our behemoths have in common is unerring directional stability. All three models are virtually immune to strong crosswinds, foul weather and sudden surface variations. Fast corners are rarely an issue either, but our 36-cylinder convoy had to slow down profusely for every tightish bend, rather like an uncoupled bullet train.
So what’s the verdict? Where would the lottery win go? The head buys the Benz. It is the most clever high-end saloon by a long shot, it will spoil you with a bouquet of creature comforts that is second to none, it is an involving fast-lane cruiser, and it leaves enough dough in the kitty to bankroll a holiday flat down by the sea.
Jekyll-and-Hyde types may fall for the Bentley, which is basically two cars in one: a smart and stylish four-door sports coupe genetically related to the even brawnier Continental GT Speed, and a purveyor of traditional Britishness and craftsmanship which typically appeals to customers who deem a Jaguar XJR too mundane. The stomach would almost certainly reach out for the keys of the Ghost. Why? Because if you want the best of the best, the most extrovert and the most prestigious, you might as well go for the car that shouts the loudest and gives the proletariat the most cause for resentment.
By - GEORG KACHER